The White Snake

Illustration by Sandra Schumm

Artist comments: In my illustration of the Grimms’ fairy tale “The White Snake,” I chose to create the background of fabric in a “crazy quilt” design. It is of different fabrics pieced together without a predetermined configuration, and it resembles the patchwork pattern one often perceives while driving through hilly territory or flying and looking down at the landscape. Frequently the different colors, textures, and patterns of an area, when seen from a distance, look like different fabrics sewn together in a quilt.

This patchwork idea is also relevant to the political and boundary changes in Germany prior to the Grimms’ transcription of their collection of fairy tales. In his novel Grimm’s Last Fairytale, author Haydn Middleton describes pre-German Germany as a “patchwork of principalities, duchies and kingdoms.” The background “crazy quilt” pattern I’ve used to illustrate “The White Snake,” in addition to echoing the varied fabric of a country made from these small kingdoms, is also meant to suggest by its colors the elements of earth, sky, and water, as mentioned in the tale.  Moreover, I selected fabrics—silks, satins, and cotton prints—that intimate richness, depth, and complexity. This opulence and intensity is also conveyed by the silken and gold-metallic threads that I used to embroider many of the figures and the glittery beads that decorate the tree and apple and form the eyes of many of the animals.

While looking at the land from a different perspective was part of my inspiration for the patchwork background, another part was my emphasis of a distinct angle of the fairy tale. Instead of focusing on the plot or characters—the servant/young man and the princess he marries—I elected to highlight the symbolic elements and animals that play such an important role in the meaning of the tale. For example, the snake, which gives wisdom and insight to the servant/young man, is a symbol of sagacity in many cultures. The whiteness of the snake in this tale suggests even further purity—unlike the serpent that tempts Adam and Eve in the Christian tradition. 

The three ravens, like the snake, have deep figurative meaning. Ravens, according to Ted Andrews in Animal Speak, represent “magic, shapeshifting, and creation” (187), which are all important themes in “The White Snake.” The magic wisdom given by the snake changes the life of the servant, giving him a chance to create a new place in the world, while the ravens transport the magical apple that ultimately unites him with the princess. The black color of the ravens who do this good deed also hints at transformation of dark to light and, thus, the alchemical union of opposites. Andrews also mentions that all birds symbolize the alchemical process that indicates change in one’s life (see 69-71). Likewise, the ants, also black in my illustration, instruct us in detail and industriousness and, according to Andrews, “how to build, how to become the architect of your own life” (336). The young man definitely learns that he can summon up power with the help of these animals to positively change his life.

Both the gold ring and golden apple intimate eternity and affluence for the young man and the princess by their circular, unending shape and their color. Also, they suggest an alchemical union of opposites (the formerly poor man and the princess), which is validated by the golden hue of both objects. The fact that the apple comes from a tree of life, also conveys the idea of consciousness (earth) and the unconscious (underground) worlds that reach toward creation (sky). The fish also explore in the depths of the water—another symbol of the unconscious—to retrieve the ring. 

At any rate, I found these symbolic figures in “The White Snake” at least equally intriguing as the nameless servant/young man and princess, who represent the positive unity of humanity in this tale. Depicting nature metaphorically as a crazy quilt was more intriguing and relevant for me than an illustration of the characters. After all, focus on the figurative perspective of the fairy tale is a great part of what gives it meaning and depth for us. Also, expressing that metaphorical viewpoint with a collage of textiles—stitch by stitch—imitates how fairy tales, history, and our personal lives develop. The resulting background and individual stitches echo the crazy but cohesive fabric of our lives.

Works cited:

Andrews, Ted. Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2010.

Middleton, Haydn. Grimm’s Last Fairytale: A Novel. London: Abacus, 1999.